Exclusive: How AI is powering Dubai’s pursuit of happiness

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

HE Aisha Bint Butti Bin Bishr, Director General, Smart Dubai Office, on building ‘the happiest city on Earth’.

Image: Smart Dubai

Dubai is a city of superlatives. The Burj Khalifa skyscraper is the tallest building in the world, at a staggering 828 metres; the sprawling Dubai Mall is the largest shopping mall in the world, with over 1,200 shops.

Fittingly, the city also wants to be “the happiest city on Earth”, says the Director General of the Smart Dubai Office. Feedback sessions with people revealed that they were “frustrated” with their dealings with government, Her Excellency Dr Aisha Bint Butti Bin Bishr tells GovInsider. “When they do their government transactions, they have to visit different websites.”

Her agency has launched several strategies to harness AI and Blockchain to improve government services, and has set up an “experience lab”, a dedicated team that gathers feedback from citizens to redesign and transform city experiences, she says.

Delivering seamless services

Dubai is delving into AI for government services in a big way, with the intent of making everyday life “much more seamless and impactful”. In October last year, the United Arab Emirates launched the UAE Strategy for Artificial Intelligence, and appointed the world’s first Minister for Artificial Intelligence.

With these moves, the UAE wants to harness AI to solve key problems: reduce traffic accidents, minimise chronic diseases, and increase productivity across sectors, for example. “We truly believe that AI is going to be a significant problem solver for the future,” says HE Aisha.
“We truly believe that AI is going to be a significant problem solver for the future.”
In Dubai, the local government has also launched its own roadmap for artificial intelligence. A key project is an intelligent assistant called Rashid, launched in 2016 and built on IBM Watson technology. It was the first Dubai government service using AI, using natural language to understand citizens’ requests for information.

It is first being used to make it easier to set up businesses in the city. Entrepreneurs can ask Rashid questions on business licensing requirements and regulation processes, for instance, and get responses in real-time, HE Aisha says.

The Office is now exploring the possibility of Rashid working across public and private sector services. It will become a “personal concierge” for people living in Dubai, she adds: “helping us book flights, tickets, cabs, or even find the best schools for our children.”

AI across government

An important consideration for Dubai is that these rapid technological changes are tempered by its citizens, and how they wish to interact with government. The government launched a unified platform for service delivery in response to citizens’ frustrations with having to scour through a myriad of websites to get information.

Dubai Now, launched in 2015, allows residents to access services from different departments on one platform - whether that may be paying utility bills, police fines or parking tickets; renewing trade licenses; or even making appointments with public hospitals.

“Now, we are also introducing AI on top of this app,” says HE Aisha, adding that this predictive feature will be able to “understand” each user’s monthly transactions and interest in services, and recommend similar services to them in the future. “We work closely with different segments of life in Dubai to make sure that we take their feedback in all these experiences,” she explains.

Boosting skills

All these efforts are part of Dubai’s bid to be ten years ahead of all other cities - an initiative announced by the Ruler of Dubai last year. As part of this 10X initiative, each government agency now has its own innovation unit which must come up with ways to disrupt the government.

HE Aisha’s agency, in particular, is developing a Smart City University, an online learning platform for anyone to learn about the impact of technology. It will “help train all those interested to implement emerging technology in their specific industries”, she says, such as the impact of Blockchain in healthcare or AI in construction.

Students have autonomy to shape their own curriculums, and choose non-traditional learning methods via work projects, reading materials, conferences, workshops and online courses. This is possible because the platform sits on decentralised Blockchain technology. “Typically, we don’t go to classes to learn anymore. We open a Youtube channel and learn many things; we listen to Ted Talks; we attend conferences,” HE Aisha points out.

The initiative was launched this week, and Dubai hopes that it will help achieve a 2020 target to have 10% of UAE’s talent digitally skilled.

Alongside this, the government itself needs to be skilled in understanding the use of technology. In 2017, Dubai launched an AI lab to provide skills training for both government and private sector employees, along with local students. Since then, more than 250 government employees have been trained in AI programming languages, she says.

Executive diploma courses on using and managing data are also available, she continues, and almost 300 civil servants have benefited from these courses. “Even government entities need to understand the new way of handling data,” HE Aisha remarks.
“Even government entities need to understand the new way of handling data.”
UAE’s largest city, a vision of futuristic skyscrapers rising starkly out of sand dunes, is constantly striving to achieve firsts and world’s bests. Dubai believes that AI is the next big thing - a digital manifestation of its impressive physical presence.